“U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce Shortages” - Myth, Propoganda or a Full-Blown Crisis?”

For years, a drumbeat has been growing louder in the U.S. -  Skilled scientists and engineers are in short supply, boomers are retiring, and young kids don't want to study science or engineering.  What's a corporation to do? There's simply no other option, some would have us believe, than to invite more foreign engineers and scientists to work here on HB1 visas and to offshore and outsource more functions to India and China. Of course, there is much more to the offshoring argument than acquiring new skilled workers: pharma wants to be near potentially huge markets for its projects and to speed time to market in these areas. But what do you think?  Please take this minisurvey and let us know.  If there is a growing shortage, it's all too tempting to blame it on the U.S. educational system and on young people themselves, but when the U.S. is commoditizing and devaluing the value of a science or engineering degree---we now have temp agencies specializing in 'rent an engineer,' 'rent a chemist'--- how can we wonder that many high school students don't want to study science in school?  And, when becoming a post-doc means years of living on $25,000-$30,000 per year without any guarantee of employment, why would any rational trust-fund-free student growing up in the U.S. want to continue studying for a science Ph.D.?  Fortunately, for some, love of the subject conquers all.  But for the rest, it requires almost superhuman dedication to persevere, and we shouldn't be surprised that over half of the U.S. doctorates and post docs in science and engineering right now are foreign students, many of whom will return home. We should be worried about that trend, though, as well as the fact that nearly one-third of the new patents filed in the U.S. are being filed by foreign scientists and engineers in the U.S. on visas.  It's not industry's job to worry but government's. First, the current shortage is not as dire has past studies would have had us believe. Duke University professor Vivek Wadhwa and his colleagues deflated some of the chilling projections about engineering that were circulated in the U.S. two years ago, when we read that the U.S turned out 70,000 engineers and scientists per year, while China graduated 600,000 and India, 350,000. Duke's research found that engineering figures in India and China, particularly China, were highly inflated, and included graduates of two- and three-year programs and even paraprofessional programs. On an adjusted basis, he wrote, the U.S. is still ahead in graduating more 4-year B.S. engineers per million people than China or India. Thus, past suggestions by the Conference Board and government that the U.S. increase science and engineering enrollments by 100,000 per year would lead to oversupply and further decreases in U.S. engineering and science salaries (which have been flat for the past ten years). Taking a different view to Wadhwa is Duke's Arie Lewin, coauthor of last year's Offshoring Research Network study , who believes that growing U.S. science and engineering skills shortages may be helping to fuel the trend outsourcing and offshoring.  So where does this leave pharma and bio? Biotech companies say they are facing major skill shortages right now.  I asked Geoff Davis, former Dartmouth professor now working for Microsoft, who runs the Engineering Sciences blog on phds.org (a must read for any graduate student or anyone contemplating doctoral studies) for his views.  "To be honest, I really don't know what's going on in the life sciences labor market.  I see huge numbers of incredibly smart, highly trained postdocs in the life sciences struggling to find jobs, and I see biotech companies claiming that they can't find skilled workers," he wrote.  "There's certainly no shortage of talent - tell Genentech and Gilead I'd be happy to make some introductions." He added, "One thing to consider is that the majority of the postdocs in the US are foreign-born.  So it's entirely possible that companies are in fact hiring postdocs, but a substantial fraction of the people they are interested in are non-citizens."  Here's his analysis of the potential oversupply of Ph.D.'s, based on NSF data, showing the number of first-year and Ph.D. students in life sciences. It suggests severe misalignment between academic programs and industry needs, which, surely could be addressed fairly easily.  Davis writes, "Academic labs are structured differently than corporate labs, work toward different types of goals (e.g. more basic research than applied), and so on.  My own move from the professoriate to Microsoft required a bit of an adjustment, but it wasn't that big of a deal.  A ramping up period seems to me a small price to pay for an employee who will be a valuable contributor to a company in the long term." Davis shared a copy of Harvard economist Richard Freeman's analysis of this subject. Freeman divides current thought into two schools: those who believe demographics are driving a real shortage and those who believe that globalization will gradually shift entire job markets away from the U.S. Some suggestions on curing the "chicken and egg" problem of decreasing science and engineering enrollments and potential workforce shortages in the U.S.:
  • Recruit excellent teachers, with industry experience, and pay them industry-level salaries to teach at secondary (and even primary) schools.
  • Pay postdocs what they'd earn in industry ($70,000 per year would be a good figure, Wadhwa says) to encourage the best and brightest U.S. students to stick it out and get their Ph.D.'s in science and engineering.  This would cost the government labs a few billion dollars a year he says, but would be a small investment to pay to help ensure a competitive U.S. technology base.
  • Change the mind-set about scientists and engineers by increasing their salaries, and the prestige of their professions. 
  • To induce more foreign scientists to stay, offer them greencards. (Wadhwa's modest proposal).
Unfortunately, these solutions appear very unlikely to be implemented any time soon. What do you think about this issue?  Please write in and tell us. In the meantime, watch for June's cover story, which will touch on this debate, as well as the industry's plans in Asia.   AMS